Inside Some Stranger's Stomach
164 · 19 March 98
Neutral Milk Hotel: In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
An album's greatness, to me, is only partially under its own control. It exists, sometimes despite concerted efforts to deny this, not in isolation, but hopelessly entwined in the threads that cross it from every direction, on their way from a style it grazes at one edge to an opposing one across its width, from the past behind it (not always its own) out of which it emerged to the events that transpire afterwards, rippling from its wake. Over the weekend I finished reading Nicola Griffith's first novel, Ammonite, and although the custom it introduces, trata, an exchange of social obligations between clans, is probably viable on a large scale only in situations of underpopulation and resource scarcity, the idea that mutual interdependence could (or should) take the place of commerce resonates strongly with me. Survival, on Jeep (the planet in the book), depends on trata, on each person and clan linking their destiny to everybody else's, so that nobody can be abandoned. To be independent is to be dead. This is how music works, for me, too. The more the lines of resemblance and deviation and derivation cross and tangle, the more each album is woven into the fabric of its context, and the more vital it becomes. So Nirvana's Nevermind, for example, which the threads of modern rock sometimes seem to radiate from as if bent upon transforming the entire genre into a frizzy god's-eye, derives almost as much of its stature, in my mind, from how other music can be understood in relation to it, as it does from the music actually contained on the disc. The experience of an album when it's new, and these bonds are yet to form, is not always a reliable predictor of what it will come to represent; when I made my top-ten-album list, at the end of 1991, Nevermind came in sixth. My favorite album, that year, was The Promise, the third record by slick Eighties arena-pop holdovers T'Pau. I listened to both albums again, recently, and solely on internal merits, I still enjoy The Promise more. It's clear, however, from the vantage point of six years later, that The Promise was (and still is) part of a tangent to the main plot of Nineties rock. Although I love it dearly, it has not turned out to be Great. Yet, anyway.
One of the albums that is doing a more effective job of living up to my hopes for it is Guided by Voices' Bee Thousand. It arrived with a past already in tow, a legacy of cryptic, sprawling pop albums that stretched back to Sgt. Pepper, along the way encasing my other favorite exemplar, Game Theory's Lolita Nation. In the three years since I discovered Bee Thousand, though, it has come to be a major vertex in my personal pop geometry less for its place in history than its ability, latitudinally, to connect pop music's most experimental and evasive extremes to its most polished and forthright. Through its depot, in my musical world, run the supply lines from Roxette to Mecca Normal, from Jellyfish to Sonic Youth, from Tommy Keene to the Ramones, exchanging the essential nutrients that one kingdom dreams of and another staggers under. For you, maybe, some other album performs this function, Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville, or Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade, or U2's Achtung, Baby, but in my world, all these are satellites, too.
That said, though, if there's one thing Bee Thousand has been missing, it's a future. Robert Pollard himself has continued to make Bee Thousand-esque albums, and the Loud Family has made two more albums as intricate as Lolita Nation, but compared with the long lists of records that have seemed to me to owe huge parts of their existences to Nevermind, or Little Earthquakes, or Jagged Little Pill, there haven't been many that I couldn't imagine existing without GbV's precedent. Thus when Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea arrived on a crest of enthusiastic Bee Thousand comparisons, I was skeptical but excited. Skeptical first because Bee Thousand is a hard album to follow, in any sense, and second because my experiences with the Apples in Stereo and the Olivia Tremor Control, two other members of the recording collective to which NMH belongs, had run rather counter to the confident endorsements I'd read about them; excited, nonetheless, because, I guess, I never really learn the obvious lessons from these disappointments.
As it turns out, the comparison is patently apt in some ways, and misguided in others, which is precisely the combination that best ennobles each element of the equation, and weaves them both ever more tightly into their histories. The most striking similarities between Bee Thousand and In the Aeroplane Over the Sea are structural. On both albums, songs collapse and erupt quite suddenly, born of inspiration and abandoned by lapses in attention, like abridgments of a narcoleptic's lecture-series, products of the insight that the coherency of an album need not be calculated by aggregating the coherency of its individual components. Bursts of frayed, cacophonous noise punctuate the proceedings, the arrangements claustrophobic and distressed, with moments of sunny pop exuberance slicing through in dazzling contrast to the murky, roiling surroundings. NMH and GbV use similarly eclectic and disorganized palettes, which intermingle grinding fury and melodic grandeur with the dementia of genius; one moment a meticulous pop harlequin is genuflecting to a Beatles monument the size of Mt. Rushmore, and the next moment the record sounds like a landscaper's panel truck being disassembled while in motion. The titles and catch-phrases here, like "The King of Carrot Flowers", "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea", "Two-Headed Boy", "she was born in a bottle-rocket" and "thunderous sparks from the dark of the stadiums", all have the weird, geeky, semi-random ring of Guided by Voices', like excerpts from the assiduous output of a million monkeys set to watch Star Trek reruns on endless repeat as they type. And NMH leader Jeff Mangum, like Pollard, sings with an arresting mixture of ambition, artlessness and faith, straining earnestly to make his tunes sound like they must in his head. And so, somewhat unsurprisingly, the first few times I played In the Aeroplane Over the Sea I wondered whether it wasn't simply redundant, as prefigured and superseded by Bee Thousand in my life as Natalie Imbruglia's Left of the Middle is by Jagged Little Pill.
I'm much slower to dismiss an album that I suspect of counterfeiting an obscurity, though. Attempts to replicate Alanis Morissette's aesthetic and success are prevalent, and their motives are easy to imagine; but imitating Bee Thousand has no obvious commercial rationale, at least. So I was content to just keeping playing this record, for a while, enjoying the Bee Thousand experience all over again. Eventually the novelty would run out, I'd start to miss the original, and I'd shelve In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, get Bee Thousand back out and play it a couple times to recalibrate, and then move on to whatever's next. As In the Aeroplane Over the Sea cycled through my peripheral awareness, though, I gradually noticed that instead of wearing out, it was beginning to resolve into something distinct from Bee Thousand. My first realization was that although both albums brandish the roughness of their productions, the roughnesses are of significantly different types. Guided by Voices' version of low-fi is wildly erratic, as if every third knob has been twisted at random between each take, so that songs careen by upended, contorted, inverted and lashed together with electrical tape. NMH's noisiness is much less arbitrary. There are bursts of radio static, stabs of obtrusively wheezy keyboards and swaths of badly overdriven guitar, but these participate like regular instruments, well-behaved, without attempting to subvert the other sounds. Mangum's voice and acoustic guitar, the center of most of these songs, are clear and strong, produced with care, albeit without much processor sheen. The magical tension on Bee Thousand, for me, is that I can never be sure if the album is the result of a fiendish evil master plan or just a maniacal drunken rampage. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is warped, but plainly sober.
Secondly, while there are almost as many abrupt transitions on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea as on Bee Thousand, Mangum returns to his unfinished ideas, as Pollard does not. GbV jump from song to song like the entire universe has been reconstituted from scratch in the invisible instant where one track turned into another, and the very laws under which the previous universe operated are likely to no longer apply. Here, instead, instruments from one song reappear in later ones like recurring characters of a single narrative, like the album is a novel of which the songs are chapters, not intended to exist out of this context. The eight-minute "Oh Comely", most obviously, turns down several opportunities to disintegrate, determinedly retracing its cycling melody line. "Two-Headed Boy", the centerpiece, even returns as the finale (and a substantive one, not the token reprise pop albums occasionally indulge in). And while Bee Thousand's vehement defiance of continuity remains one of things I admire most about it, adapting its jump-cut style to serve more classical goals is an inspired reversal, and almost as impressive a trick.
And lastly, some time after I began noticing the themes the music recapitulates, it also began to dawn on me that this album doesn't just have the cadences of storytelling, it is actually telling a story. I hadn't even thought to look for one, since Bee Thousand rarely makes sense from one line to the next, and the typographical disaster of a lyric sheet here is almost antithetical to following along (no punctuation, unreadable line-lengths, and a blithe intermixture of lyrics, typos, omissions and annotations), but I've gradually begun to piece things together. Mangum's lyric-writing style is almost the converse of Pollard's: the paragraphs make more sense than the individual lines. The significance of "carrot flowers" and "holy rattlesnakes", in "The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. One", escapes me, but the song as a whole is a fierce, confused simultaneous portrait of the narrator's first love affair and the girl's sad, dysfunctional family. The first half of "The King of Carrot Flowers Pts. Two & Three" is a simple repetition of "I love you, Jesus Christ", but the lyric sheet, instead of echoing this obvious text, offers an explanation of the secular belief the prayer is meant to represent, and the combination, especially with the words sung in Mangum's unsteady whine, and after the blur of young love and parental disillusionment in part one, is like a wistful, half awe-struck memory of past convictions. The title track, laced with rueful horns, tries to sort through the memories more rationally, but gets tangled in the ambiguity about how much of a love affair the lover creates, and how much of your feelings you fabricate yourself. "Two-Headed Boy", propelled by an insistent acoustic-guitar pulse that reminds me of Billy Bragg, combines a gentle, tentative love song with heart-wrenching insecurity, trying desperately to understand the two things as a single phenomenon. After the sliding calliope interlude of "The Fool", "Holland, 1945" crashes in like an unholy hybrid of Jonathan Richman and Ozzy Osbourne, and it appears that the girl and her family have all been killed in the war, which explains both the sad tone of the previous songs and the feeling of distance in the memories. Then, without transition or explanation, we're jolted forward to the muted, hissing "Communist Daughter", which makes social sense, as the world tries to rebuild its value-systems after the war, but otherwise puzzles me. "Oh Comely" might be the link between them, half a "Pretty in Pink"-like anthem for the communist's abused life and half a historical lament for the dead girl, and I wonder at least once if the communist is the dead girl's daughter, and the narrator's, but I think I'm trying to be too specific. The stomping, cathartic "Ghost" flips back to the dead girl, but then forward again to another girl falling to her death in a New York City apartment-building fire, as if all dying girls are avatars of one immortal archetypal victim. The untitled tenth track is a cart-wheeling quasi-Celtic soundtrack for their collective wake, swirling with trombones and plaintive, bleating pipes. By the concluding reprise of "Two-Headed Boy" I've decided, boringly, that the narrator's two heads are himself as a boy and himself as an adult, and, depressingly, that just about all the rest of the characters are figments of his imagination, all he's had to share fifty years of solitude with. "God is a place where some holy spectacle lies", he says, and it's clear he means the girl. And then: "God is a place you will wait for the rest of your life", and his life threatens to become as meaningless an exercise in procrastination and cowardice as her suicidal father's was. The weight of his sanity and existence, then, hang on the final passage, where his living memory of her love can be the difference between purpose and purposelessness. For a second, in a flash, it strikes me that except for the setting this album could be the script to For Gillian, on Her 37th Birthday, which I suppose would make Claire Danes the communist daughter. That passes (with a shudder), but the main characters of the album and the film are faced with a similar dilemma, as the memory of their lovers is both the thing that keeps them alive and the thing that is killing them. In the film, the man dismisses the ghost, boards up his house and heads back to Boston to take his old teaching job, and it feels cheap and unsatisfying to me, a victory only according to terms he should have refused to accept. The album leaves the question unanswered, and affects me much more deeply. I want to believe that love is more powerful than death. In the final scene, as the record glides to a stop ("She will feed you tomatoes and radio wires, / And retire to sheets safe and clean, / But don't hate her when she gets up to leave."), he isn't fighting to rid himself of a delusion, he's fighting to sustain it, to not let the delusion undo itself. And I guess I'm siding with the dead girl, because the idea that he might fail makes me cry.
And it's only at this point, as the thoughts of sadness and Claire Danes conspire to send me spiraling off into an inevitable My So-Called Life reverie, that it finally occurs to me that the girl in the story is Anne Frank.
Red House Painters: Songs for a Blue Guitar
The other thing that makes me cry this week, and thankfully there are only two, is a single astounding transformation on this 1996 album by the Red House Painters. It's a melancholy album, to begin with, Mark Kozelek's quiet, plaintive songs built on acoustic guitars and elaborate slide-guitar sighs, descendants of Grant Lee Buffalo and American Music Club (or even, if he'd only open his mouth wider, John Denver), or on sweet pop vocals undercut by clipped, ragged electric-guitar figures, like police sketches of fugitive Bruce Cockburn songs that come out looking unnervingly like the Smashing Pumpkins. In with these restrained, folkish compositions, though, Kozelek tosses three covers. The recasting of Yes' "Long Distance Runaround" for a fuzzy, Warren Zevon-ish guitar/piano/bass/drums ensemble is the strangest impulse of the set, almost certainly the only time anybody has felt it necessary to make a Yes song longer, and the attempt to transpose the baroque flourishes of the original for slashing rhythm guitar, while laudable for courage and technique, just makes me miss Chris Squire. The starkest of the three rewrites is a becalmed, eleven-minute version of Paul McCartney's "Silly Love Songs" that seems to labor under the misapprehension that the silly love songs he was referring to were "Taps" and "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald".
The one that mesmerizes me, however, is a frail, breathy, almost Cowboy Junkies-like cover of the Cars' jerky synth-pop classic "All Mixed Up". Songs have been slowed down often enough, usually as jokes (Aztec Camera's jangly version of Van Halen's "Jump", the Sisters of Mercy's epic retard of the Stones' "Gimme Shelter" and Tori Amos' eerie "Smells Like Teen Spirit" being three obvious examples, of varying humor content), but Kozolek's rendition is slow not for contrast with the original, but for this version's own reasons. Shuffling drums, lilting bass, soaring guitar, twinkling piano and Mark's passionate voice turn the song into a breathtakingly beautiful ballad, complete with airy backing harmonies on the chorus that make "She said 'leave it to me, / Everything will be all right'" into a wistful lullaby. In the original the song's lyrics tend to speed by, and end up conveying a frantic confusion, but not much else. Here, stretched out, the blunt rhyme scheme downplayed, the song is almost unbearably haunting to me, the repetition of "It's all mixed up" a function of the depth of the narrator's helplessness, not an invitation to dance-floor spasms. If I'd never heard the original, I'm not sure this song would mean anything more to me than the rest of the slow, pretty, haunting, emotional songs on this album. But again, context is everything. This isn't just a slow, pretty, haunting, emotional song, it's a slow, pretty, haunting, emotional song unraveled from the knotted core of a quick, bouncy, glib synth-pop trifle, and the idea that there might be aching beauty hidden in every fleeting sparkle fires such a surge of hope in my heart that I almost faint. There is so little beauty, it usually seems, and so much meaningless sparkle. For six minutes, it's like the universe has been turned inside out. Every grave is a dais, ever jailer's tower a well, every loss a reunion.